The Flagship Wars in the Manila-Cebu Route

In the first 15 years after World War II there was not much of what was later called “the flagship wars”. How can there be flagship wars when it was an ex-”FS” ship battling another ex-”FS” ship? The ex-“FS” ship were just small World War II surplus ships from the US Navy that were slow and lumbering just like the freighters. And with the basicness of the ex-”FS” ships, there was really no “luxury” to talk about when there was no airconditioning, no real amenities, no entertainment (unless one brings out a guitar and croons), no true lounges or even enough space to walk about. There were bigger ships like the Type C1-M-AV1 which were also war surplus ships from the US Navy but they were also basic ships and also lack speed (both the two mentioned types only sail at about 11 knots which was also the sailing speed of the general cargo ships). As general rule, cargo ships converted for passenger use do not produce luxury liners. If ever, it would be the former refrigerated cargo ships that can be made into luxury liners or else the best is to buy former luxury liners from Europe.

The Manila-Cebu route was and is still the premier shipping route in the Philippines. This route connects the primary metropolis and manufacturing center to the secondary metropolis and manufacturing center of the country. Hence, the movement of people and goods would be highest in this route. If there is a next premier route it would be the Manila-Iloilo route. The Manila-Cebu route is also the gateway to the routes to Northern Mindanao while the Manila-Iloilo route is the gateway to the routes to Western Mindanao and Southern Mindanao.

The early postwar liners calling on Cebu did not have an exclusive route to Cebu much like the prewar liners. From Cebu they will still go to Northern Mindanao ports or even sail to Southern Mindanao ports via Zamboanga. It was not unusual then for liners to have five ports of call in a voyage. That was why complete voyages then to Cebu and Northern Mindanao took one week and complete voyages to Cebu and Southern Mindanao took two weeks. In the latter a liner might have seven ports of call. As they say, “the better to pack ’em in.”

When luxury liners first came they funnily have the code “airconditioned” (airconditioning was rare then). And the word “luxury” also began to be bandied about. In terms of speed they were significantly better than the basic ex-”FS” ships and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. Some of the earliest local liners were the trio from Everett Steamship being sailed by Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), the Elcano, Legaspi and Cagayan de Oro which all came in 1955, the Luzon (1959) and Visayas (1963) of Compania Maritima which were doing dual local and foreign routes, the General Roxas (1960) and General del Pilar (1961) of General Shipping Corp., the President Quezon (1960) of Philippine President Lines (which became the Quezon of Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 and later the Pioneer Iloilo of the same company in 1965), the Governor B. Lopez (1961) of Southern Lines Inc., the Fatima of Escano Lines (1964).

If one will notice, there is no mention here of a ship of Go Thong & Co. or William Lines and definitely there is no error in the list. In that roost, the President Quezon ruled in speed department at 18 knots and the next fastest to her sailed at only 16 knots with the tailender at 12 knots which was just about the same as the ex-”FS” ships and the ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships. That was the picture of the luxury ship sector of the Philippines two decades after World War II.

In that era, there was no “flagship wars” as understood a decade later. Maybe if the better ships were all doing long routes it will be a wonder where and how they will compete. This is especially true for the luxury liners sailing to Cebu and then proceeding to many southern ports up to Davao. I noticed the tight “flagship wars” started only when there were already true fast cruisers and when the route was exclusively limited to Manila-Cebu.

It was Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines, a newcomer in liner shipping which started the true “flagship wars” in 1970. They were able to acquire that ship which was a luxury liner even in Europe and she was really fast. When she came she became the new postwar benchmark in speed at 20 knots and beating handsomely all the other contenders by at least 2 knots. Maybe she only did the Manila-Cebu route because she had to stress the capture of passengers because she can’t take in a significant amount of cargo. And with her accommodations all-airconditioned that was really more fit for the Manila-Cebu route which not only had more sector passengers and the better-off passengers were also there including the Cebu and Central Visayas rich who were afraid to take planes then. With such a kind of ship Sweet Lines really had to stress in ads her speed, her amenities and her brand of passenger service to capture more passengers.

She was very successful in that strategy and her repute spread far and wide and she earned many praises. It was really a paradigm change in how to do sailing and maybe that was a little too much for the older shipping companies to swallow the noise and swagger of the newcomer. William Lines had a brand-new ship, the Misamis Occidental in the same year she was fielded but she was clearly outmatched by the Sweet Faith because maybe when they finalized the design of the ship they did not see Sweet Faith coming to upset the chart.

The biggest shipping company then, the Compania Maritima, which had the resources to compete did not react and continued their stress on the route passing through Cebu before sailing for Western and Southern Mindanao up to Davao. That was also the response (or lack of response) and strategy of the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Co. which would be later known as Aboitiz Shipping Corp. and besides their luxury trio were already 15 years and outmatched and so maybe they thought they really have no option at all except to not really compete. Meanwhile, Escano Line’s priority was not really Cebu at all, its ships cannot really compete as they did not stress speed when they ordered their brand-new ships. Go Thong & Co. might have been too busy in their European expansion through Universal Shipping and maybe they thought getting all the copra in all the ports possible made more sense (they had lots of small ships for that purpose). General Shipping Corp. and Southern Lines Inc. were also gone and Galaxy Lines, the successor to the Philippine Pioneer Lines was also near to floundering already. Negros Navigation Company, meanwhile, was not competing in the Cebu route and it is in the Manila-Iloilo route where they were flexing the muscles of their brand-new liners.

For two years until 1972 Sweet Faith ruled the Manila-Cebu route. It will be up to a shipping company which long relied solely on ex-”FS” ships (until 1966) to challenge Sweet Faith with their upcoming newbuilding which will turn out to be the liner Cebu City. A sister ship of the liner Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company, she was fitted with bigger engines. Since Don Juan can only do 19 knots maybe they decided on bigger engines to be able to compete with the 20 knots of Sweet Faith. Cebu City came in 1972 that began the battle royale of the two flagships whose intensity passed the two ships to shipping folklore long after both ships were gone (only the millennials would not have heard of their battles).

In 1973, the liner Sweet Home of Sweet Lines arrived to form a “tag team” to battle Cebu City. She was not as fast as the two at 18 knots but she was bigger and as luxurious as the Sweet Faith because she was already a luxury ship in Europe when she was still the known as the Caralis.

In 1975, Sulpicio Lines joined the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” when they acquired the second Don Sulpicio from RKK in Japan. Unlike their previous ships this liner had no cargo ship origins. A fast cruiser at 18 knots and with accommodations much like the Cebu City she was also a legit contender. In this wars it is not only speed that was advertised but also punctuality of departures. That is aside from the food, the amenities and the passenger service.

In 1976, the newly-arrived Dona Ana also joined this fray. She was a sister ship of Don Sulpicio but faster at 19 knots and newer. However, she was a Manila-Cebu-Davao ship and she only competed in the Manila-Cebu leg as a “tag team” too with the second Don Sulpicio. Dona Ana also started a new paradigm on her own, the fast cruiser to Davao which she can do in only three days compared to nearly a week of the others. The flagship of Compania Maritima, the liner Filipinas was forced to respond by cutting ports of call and announcing they will sail the Davao route in only 4 days. In a sense this was also a “flagship war”. Later, the Dona Ana became a replacement flagship in the Manila-Cebu route when Don Sulpicio was hit by a bad fire in 1979 and her repairs took two years. By that time, it was another new fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines, the Don Enrique (later the Davao Princess) that was battling the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima in the Davao route along with the liner Manila City of William Lines [there will be a future article on these Manila-Davao fast cruiser battles].

Sweet Faith and Sweet Home lasted just less than a decade in the Manila-Cebu “flagship wars” because they were already old ships when they first came here. Sweet Home quit earlier about 1978 and Sweet Faith quit in 1980. However, even before she quit, the new flagship of William Lines, the Dona Virginia has already arrived. She will be linked in an epic battle not with a flagship of Sweet Lines but with a flagship of Sulpicio Lines. This liner is the Philippine Princess which came in 1981. Dona Virginia had the upperhand as she was faster, bigger and more beautiful-looking and she ruled the Manila-Cebu route. Both were exclusively Manila-Cebu ferries and like those that came in the 1970s they had no cargo ship origins. In this decade Compania Maritima was no longer in the running as they no longer had new ship acquisitions and in fact they quit when the financial and political crises spawned by the Ninoy Aquino assassination broke out.

After an interregnum of two years without a dedicated Manila-Cebu liner, Sweet Lines brought out their new challenger, the luxurious Sweet RORO but she was smaller and her speed was slightly inferior to the flagships of William Lines and Sulpicio Lines. However, she was as luxurious if not more so and she trumpeted an all-airconditioned accommodations and she was a true RORO which was the new type and paradigm that was gaining already. Meanwhile, Aboitiz Shipping Corp. gave up all semblance of a fight and just concentrated in container shipping. The Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping Corp. also withdrew from the Cebu route for practical purposes. Escano Lines were also not buying ships like Aboitiz Shipping and also were not contenders. Negros Navigation Company, like before was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

Suddenly, in 1988, Sulpicio Lines did what was equivalent to exploding a grenade in the competition. They were able to acquire the Filipina Princess which broke all local records in size and speed. It was far bigger and far faster than the Dona Virginia of William Lines and was a true RORO. Even though William Lines was able to acquire the RORO liner Sugbu in 1990, she was not a bigger or a faster ship than the Dona Virginia she was replacing as flagship. To rub salt on wound, in the same year Sulpicio Lines also acquired the Cotabato Princess and the Nasipit Princess which were also bigger than the Dona Virginia (and Sugbu) though not as fast. So for few years, in terms of size, Sulpicio Lines possessed the No. 1, 2 and 3 position in terms of ship size.

As to the others, in 1987, Sweet Lines was able to acquire the Sweet Baby but she was not as big as the William Lines and Sulpicio flagships nor can she match them really in speed. Soon, Escano Lines would be quitting liner shipping. There was really a big “consolidation” in the liner shipping industry, a euphemism to cover the fact that a lot of liner shipping companies sank in that horrendous decade for shipping that was the 1980’s. Again, Negros Navigation Company was not competing in the Manila-Cebu route.

With this “consolidation” it just became a mano-a-mano between Sulpicio Lines and William Lines in the Manila-Cebu route with the others reduced more or less to bystanders….

[There is a sequel to this describing the “flagship wars” of the 1990’s.]

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Some Unfortunate Flagships and Famous Former Flagships (Part 1)

If people think flagships or famous former flagships fare better than the rest of their fleet, well, don’t be too fast in conclusions. Empirical evidence might not support that and these tales might make you wonder and think. This selection is limited to post-World War II ferries. This is also limited to liner shipping companies and the bigger regional shipping companies. For the latter, I limited it to flagships at the moment they were lost.

The TSS Mayon

The Mayon was the flagship of the recomposed fleet of the Manila Steamship Company Inc. after World War II. She was the second ship acquired by the company after World War II (she is a different ship from the prewar Mayon of Manila Steamship Co.). The first was not really acquired but returned. That was the Anakan which was a prewar ship of the company that fell into Japanese hands during World War II and pressed into the military effort on their side. It was fortunate to survive the Allied campaign against Japanese shipping during the war. When the war ended and Japanese ships were surrendered she was returned by the Allies to the company in 1945.

The Mayon was built as the Carabobo in 1923 by the New York Shipbuilding in Camden, New Jersey, USA for the Atlantic and Caribbean Shipping and Navigation of Delaware, USA. In 1938, she was sold to the Northland Transportation Company of Alaska, USA. In 1946, Manila Steamship Co. which was also known as the Elizalde y Compania acquired this ship and she was fielded in the Manila-Iloilo-Pulupandan route of the company. Originally classified as a refrigerated passenger/cargo ship, she had luxurious accommodation because that meant airconditioning and cold drinks were available and those treats were rare in that era. With cabins and lounges, she was considered a luxury liner of her days.

However, on a charter voyage from Jakarta to Manila on February 18, 1955, an explosion and fire hit her and she was beached off the western coast of Borneo island. This incident so shook up Manila Steamship Co. that they withdrew from shipping the same year and they sold all their vessels to other companies except for the very old Bisayas, the former Kvichak which was sold to the breakers. Most of the these sold ships were former “FS” ships. Manila Steamship Co. never went back again to shipping. Elizalde y Compania was one of the biggest companies in the Philippines then and its founder Manuel Elizalde Sr. was one of the richest men in the Philippines during that time and he was known as a financial backer of presidential candidates.

The MV Dona Conchita

This was the first Dona Conchita that was the first flagship of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. when they were first able to acquire a Manila route after they bought out the Pan-Oriental Shipping Company of the Quisumbing family. The ship was named after the wife of the founder of the company and this was a legendary ship during her time.

The ship was actually not an ex-”FS” ship as many thought. She is actually a former “F” ship that was lengthened by National Steel and Shipbuilding Corporation (NASSCO) in Mariveles, Bataan. Her origin was actually as a sank ship by a storm off Cavite that was bought cheap and salvaged by Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. and re-engined for she had no engines. Her replacement engines were a pair of Gray Marine diesels with nearly double the horsepower of the ex-”FS” ships and so instead of running at only 11 knots she was capable of 16 knots and thus she was able to claim as being the fastest in the Manila-Cebu route then.

This ship then did various routes for the Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. but always her first port of call from Manila was Cebu before proceeding to other ports. During those years there were no dedicated Manila-Cebu ships only (that came during the era of the fast cruisers starting in 1970 with the Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines). Because of that once, a week sailing was the norm then except for the very long routes (i.e. Davao) and the very short routes (i.e. Capiz, Mindoro, Romblon).

When the Dona Conchita got older sometimes she was not sailing. I heard her Gray Marine engines were not that durable compared to the General Motors engines of the ex-”FS” ships. Then on one of her voyages, she caught fire off Mindoro sometime in 1976 or thereabouts. There was no precise way of confirming the dates or exact location as she does not have an IMO Number and therefore she was not in the international maritime databases.

The M/S Don Juan

In 1971, Negros Navigation Company brought out their best  and biggest liner yet, the M/ S Don Juan. The ship was named in honor of Don Juan L. Ledesma, eldest child of Don Julio and Dona Florentina Ledesma, one of the founders of Negros Navigation. M/S Don Juan was a brand-new ship built by Niigata Engineering Company, Ltd. in Niigata, Japan for P13,650,000 from a design of Filipino naval architects. She was the fifth-built brand-new liner of Negros Navigation Company after the Princess of Negros (1962), the Dona Florentina (1965), the beautiful Don Julio (1967) and Don Vicente (1969). This luxury liner became the new flagship of Negros Navigation Company and she was used in the Iloilo and Bacolod routes of the company from Manila. She was fast at 19 knots and she brought an end to the reign of MV Galaxy as the speediest ship in the Manila-Iloilo route.

However, on one voyage from Manila to Bacolod she was struck on the portside by the tanker Tacloban City of the Philippine National Oil Company on the night of April 22, 1980 near the island of Maestre de Campo in Tablas Strait. Such collision proved fatal for the ship and she listed immediately and went down fast. The confirmed number of dead was 121 even though the tanker immediately tried to rescue the passengers of M/S Don Juan and even as other vessels in the vicinity tried to help in the rescue effort too. It is thought many of the dead were passengers of the cabins trapped by buckled doors and those injured by the impact. This incident triggered a mourning in Bacolod as most of the passengers who perished hailed from that place.

The wreck of the ship lies in deep waters estimated to be some 550 meters and so salvage and/or recovery is out of question as far as local resources is concerned. Maybe the RORO ferry Santa Maria, acquired by Negros Navigation Company in 1980 was the replacement of the ill-fated M/S Don Juan. But I am not sure if she was considered a flagship of the company.

The MV Cebu City

The MV Cebu City of William Lines Incorporated was a sister ship of the M/S Don Juan of Negros Navigation Company. She was also built by Niigata Engineering Company Ltd. in Niigata, Japan but her date of build (DOB) was 1972. Having a slightly bigger engine she was slightly faster than her sister since she can do 20 knots. Maybe they purposely ordered a bigger engine so she can battle in speed her would-be main rival, the Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines Incorporated in the prime Manila-Cebu route. Sweet Faith was the fastest liner then in the Philippines since her fielding in 1970. The battles of Cebu City and Sweet Faith both made them legends in Philippine shipping and remembered decades after they duked it out.

MV Cebu City was the second brand-new ship of William Lines Inc. after the MV Misamis Occidental and she was the flagship of William Lines Inc. from 1972. As the flagship, MV Cebu City exclusively did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week and so followed the pattern set by Sweet Faith. She was the flagship of the company up to the end of 1979 when the new flagship of the company arrived, the equally legendary Dona Virginia which was also involved in another tight battle with another flagship, the Philippine Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. After she was displaced as the flagship MV Cebu City sailed various routes for the company.

On the night before the morning of December 2, 1994, while hurrying after a late departure from Manila North Harbor, MV Cebu City encountered the MV Kota Suria, a container ship of Pacific International Lines (PIL) near the mouth of Manila Bay before reaching Corregidor island. On a collision course, the Kota Suria asked for the customary port-to-port evasion maneuver. However, MV Cebu City turned to port because maybe she was intending to “tuck in” near the coast, a practice of smaller ships when near then Cavite coast to save on running time. Maybe MV Cebu City thought she had enough clearance but they might have misjudged the speed of the MV Kota Suria. She was rammed by the much bigger MV Kota Suria on the starboard side which caused her to list and to capsize and sink in a short time.

About 145 people lost their lives in that collision. The Philippine Coast Guard later held that MV Cebu City was mainly at fault but Philippine authorities also detained MV Kota Suria (but she later escaped). The wreck of MV Cebu City now lies under about 25 meters of water.

The Dona Paz

The world-infamous Dona Paz was born as the Himeyuri Maru of the Ryukyu Kaiun KK (the RKK Line). She was built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1963 and she plied the Okinawa route. In 1975, she was sold to Sulpicio Lines Incorporated. She was refitted and remodelled for Philippine use with the primary intention of increasing her passenger capacity. In Sulpicio Lines, she was renamed as the Don Sulpicio and she was the new flagship of the company starting in 1975.

As the flagship of Sulpicio Lines, Don Sulpicio did the Manila-Cebu route exclusively twice a week. This was the first time Sulpicio Lines did this exclusive assignment and that was following the footsteps of Sweet Lines and William Lines which had flagships doing the Manila-Cebu exclusively. On one voyage in this route on June 7, 1979, she caught fire and she was beached in Maricaban island at the edge of the mouth of Batangas Bay. Her whole superstructure and cargo holds were consumed by the fire.

Against expectation Sulpicio Lines had her repaired but the repairs took nearly two years. Meanwhile the Dona Ana, the later Dona Marilyn took over as flagship of the company and did the Manila-Cebu route until the new flagship of Sulpicio Lines arrived, the Philippine Princess. After repairs, in her refielding in 1981, Don Sulpicio was already known as the Dona Paz. Maybe the renaming was done to avoid reference to her previous tragedy. There were also changes in her superstructure after the repair.

After her refielding, the Dona Paz was assigned to the Manila-Tacloban and Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban routes of Sulpicio Lines. However, on one voyage from Tacloban and Catbalogan she was involved in a collision with the tanker Vector on the night of December 20, 1987. The fuel of the tanker exploded and both vessels were engulfed in fire. There were only 26 survivors in the collision and there was a claimed 4,386 dead and that was affirmed by the clueless and out-of-jurisdiction Supreme Court. That was big enough to place the Dona Paz as the worst peacetime maritime tragedy in the whole world. However, the official casualty according to the Board of Marine Inquiry placed the number of dead at only 1,565 but that was what can be only counted and might be an underestimation too.

The casualty figure was clearly bloated because the Governor of Northern Samar then, Raul Daza had people sign up claims against the company and the number from his province was about 2,200. That was an impossibility since passengers from that province going to Manila generally take the bus already and that was cheaper and faster. Going to Catbalogan is actually going farther and the limited number of buses then going from Catarman to Catbalogan can only take hundreds at most. It was clearly a con game by the Governor in a scheme to bilk Sulpicio Lines. Imagine a passenger total greater than those from Leyte and Western Samar when the ship did not dock in Northern Samar! The ship was clearly overloaded but the casualty figure was really artificially bloated.

Much later the Supreme Court completely absolved Sulpicio Lines from liability in the tragedy. It was on a technicality because Vector had an expired license when it sailed. The Dona Paz wreck lies between Marinduque and Dumali Point of Mindoro near the town of Pola. The distance of it from Marinduque is twice its distance from Mindoro.

The Dona Marilyn

The Dona Marilyn was the first known as the Dona Ana in Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and she is actually a sister ship of Dona Paz. She arrived in 1976 for Sulpicio Lines and they were the first fast luxury cruiser liners of the company and so they were advertised by Sulpicio Lines as the “Big Two”. As mentioned before, as Dona Ana she replaced the then Don Sulpicio as the flagship when it caught fire in 1979 and she fulfilled that role until the Philippine Princess arrived in 1981.

The Dona Marilyn was born as the Otohime Maru in Japan. She was also built by Onomichi Zosen for Ryukyu Kaiun KK (the RKK Line) in 1966 for the Okinawa route. When she was sold to Sulpicio Lines in 1976 there was no change of flagship designation although she is the newer  and ship. She was instead fielded in the Manila-Cebu-Davao express route of the company. Maybe she was sent to that more stressful (for the engines) route because she had the newer engines. Incidentally, the engines of the two sister ships were identical but Dona Ana was rated faster than Don Sulpicio and that might be the second reason why she was assigned the long Davao route.

In 1980, the ship was renamed as the Dona Marilyn. In 1981 when the new Philippine Princess arrived she was assigned not assigned again her old Davao route because Sulpicio Lines had two new fast cruisers that came in 1978 and one of that, the Don Enrique (the future Davao Princess and Iloilo Princess) was already holding that route. She was then assigned to the new Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of the company.

In 1988, the new Cotabato Princess arrived and she was relieved from that route and she was assigned the route vacated by the loss of the Dona Paz, the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route and Manila-Tacloban route. On October 23, 1988 while there was a typhoon brewing, the Typhoon “Unsang”, Dona Marilyn tried to hightail it to Tacloban when the storm was already off the coast of Samar island on the way to Bicol. “Unsang” was a fast-gaining storm in strength and the ship being new in that area maybe did not know how fast the seas there can become vicious in so short a time (even squalls there can be dangerous for smaller crafts). The ship was swamped by the seas that gained strength from Signal No. 2 to Signal No. 3 and she listed and capsized some 5 nautical miles off Almagro island which is part of Western Samar. Only 147 people managed to survive the tragedy and some 389 people perished.

[There is a coming Part 2]

[Photo credit of MV Don Sulpicio: Times Journal and Gorio Belen]